Once upon a time, in the heady days of 1987 when The Bangles, Whitney Houston and Crowded House ruled the pop charts, South Australia was preparing to create a technological wonderland.
Under John Bannon’s leadership, the State was determined to build a cutting edge techno-marvel of a city called a Multifunction Polis.
This mouthful of a place was to be built outside Adelaide largely from Japanese billions that were flowing into Australia during the 1980s, much the same way as Chinese is money now.
Promotions for the city described it thus “a forum for international exchange in the region, and a model for new industries and new lifestyles looking ahead to the twenty-first century.”
The plan finally collapsed in the late 1990s. But now almost two decades later, the idea has returned with a series of government blueprints for the future of South Australia, where technology and innovation are centre stage.
Instead of the Multifunction Polis, the Japanese gave Adelaide a sizeable chunk of Australia’s automotive industry. It may have seemed like a great trade off. But not so much these days.
Most of the Japanese made cars sold in Australia are now shipped in from Thailand. One by one Nissan, Mitsubishi, Toyota (which will quit Adelaide in 2017) and US/European counterparts – Ford and General Motors – have shut up shop. And just as the mining boom has busted.
Perhaps more than any other State in the Federation, South Australia needs a plan. And unsurprisingly, once more the state’s leaders have turned to Asia. Since June 2015, the SA government has released plans for engagement with China, India and, most recently Southeast Asia.
To back up the initiative on Southeast Asia, Premier Jay Weatherill has just taken a (typically lumbering) 80 person trade delegation on a spin through Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
Singapore has emerged via decades of government support as the media and technology hub of Southeast Asia.
Mr Weatherill is clearly looking to Singapore for his model. It helps too that Singapore is the country in the region with which South Australia does the most trade.
With a new State innovation fund of A$15 million, it is a training wheels version of Singapore’s well established Innovation fund.
“Like Singapore we are small and need to choose a few sectors for focus.”’ Mr Weatherill told InnovationAus.com in Bangkok at the end of his trip on August 21.
Those areas are mining, defence, health and aged services, tourism and wine and food. All are rich with opportunities for innovation especially where customer centric applications using social media software are now ruling the roost.
One the one hand a $15 million innovation fund seems miserly and an unfortunate demonstration of real priorities.
It is dwarfed by the $350 being spent on redeveloping the Adelaide Oval, which for all its beauty and history, is home to one test match and a handful of one day internationals along with state cricket competitions that draw smaller crowds than some lawn bowls tournaments.
But there are also dangers in setting up large funds. It is better to gain experience and make some early mistakes while hopefully also bringing a few wins. And Mr Weatherill showed sensible flexibility in saying that government was open to providing more funding for the right opportunities.
The government has been trying to attract major technology companies and local arms of multinational corporations’ headquarters to Adelaide. Property is much cheaper in Adelaide and the city is as connected to Asia as any other Australian capital.
So far Hills Industries, a rare recent Australian technology turnaround story, and the Australian arm of information technology giant Hewlett Packard, are in the winners circle in Adelaide.
”We are in discussions with a number of others and expect to have announcements before the end of the year,” Mr Weatherill said.
One of these is Telstra, a company that has long had various arms if its increasingly multifaceted business based in various places around the nation. South Australia is attempting to lure the country’s e-health services division which is among the growth areas for the group.
Once a critical mass of technology employee opportunities is reached in Adelaide, then a genuine market emerges there for jobs and the growth of the sector becomes self –fulfilling.
Weatherill is enthusiastic about the opportunities for his State’s defence industries to be levered into privet sector start-ups. And the appointment of retired Admiral Angus Houston as chief trade and investment adviser to the SA government is expected to bring significant connections to the sector.
Yet South Australia’s latest industry and technology strategy triggers some head scratching about the intense competition between Australian States in the field.
In this publication only two weeks ago, David Thodey issued a much-needed clarion call for a national technology blueprint that would coordinate the efforts of government and research facilities across the nation
Mr Thodey called for a national rather than regional approach that mapped a future where technology is central rather than peripheral to what passes for industry policy in Australia.
Currently, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland all have declared their intentions to become Australia’s biotech centre.
But Australia is not the US with its large population and established start up and commercialisation infrastructure that can sustain this sort of regionalisation.
And you don’t catch technologically successful and wealthy nations like Germany or Sweden making those mistakes. The country’s energy would be strategically and fiscally far better channelled into group efforts.
Still, while cars may not roll out of Adelaide so much these days, the ships, submarines and drones are still there. South Australia, has an outsized share of Australia’s defence procurement budget – 20 per cent – a position recently boosted by the Abbott government’s announcement that new frigates would be built ironically near the City of Churches.
Weatherill understands that this is a capacity that, while already paying dividends, can be much better leveraged with the State government and the private sector involved. And having a retired navy chief, Angus Houston, heading his business advisory broad would seem a smart move on this front.
Unfortunately, like Multifunction Polis, such state and federal strategies come and go. They are goldmines for the consultancy, marketing, PR, airline and hotel sectors. But they fail to deliver much at all to the taxpayer with depressing regularity.
So here’s hoping that the Weatherill Government’s execution is as good as its sales pitch.